Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

13. Alternative readings

The account of §§10–12 presents Wittgenstein as inviting us to abandon the idea of our meanings and judgments being securely moored to something given to us and for which we have no responsibility. We see that there is no guarantee of any unique conceptual scheme to be revealed by analysis, or of a world articulated once and for all in terms of its categories. We are instead to become aware of our involvement in and responsibility for our own judgments and the way of life of which they are part. We are also to acknowledge that we cannot prove the unique correctness of our way of life and its associated concepts. (The arguments of the Investigations against the position of the Tractatus thus have much in common with themes explored by other late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century thinkers, such as Nietzsche, William James, Heidegger, Quine and Derrida (see Nietzsche, F. §6; Heidegger, M. §§2–4; Quine, W.V. §5).) But, the reading given in §12 implicitly suggests, this need not lead us to scepticism about the notions of meaning, fact, objectivity or truth.

This interpretation, although not idiosyncratic, is by no means generally accepted. There are a large number of differing construals of Wittgenstein’s overall intention, many of which have in common that they present the consequences of abandoning the Tractatus view as more radical and/or more deflationary, than is suggested in §12.

One interpretation stresses a contrast between the Tractatus and the later writings which is different from any highlighted earlier. It takes the rule-following considerations to show that we cannot make sense of grasp of meaning which fixes truth conditions independent of our ability to verify that they obtain. The later Wittgenstein is thought to insist (as against his earlier self) that all meaning be explicated by appeal to assertibility conditions rather than such possibly verification-transcendent truth conditions and he is recruited onto the antirealist side of the debate in the dispute between realism and antirealism.

Another much discussed view is presented by Saul Kripke. If there were facts about meaning, he argues, they would have to be constituted by something about past behaviour or present occurrences in the mind. So §§143–242 can be read as showing that there are no facts about meaning. Our practice of labelling remarks ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ and ascribing ‘meanings’ to them has a role in our social life. But such linguistic moves do not have truth conditions. Instead they have only appropriateness conditions. We are licensed to make them when others in our community keep in step with us in certain ways in their patterns of utterance.

Yet a third interpretation takes it that Wittgenstein espouses relativism. One response to the idea that there are no simples is to take it that the world is a featureless mush or unknowable something. Any apparent structure in it is then imposed by us. Hence the familiar physical and social world we experience is a creation of ours. But there are several possible but incompatible ways of imposing structure, one of which we are physiologically and/or socially caused to adopt. So no judgment can claim to be ‘true’ in a non-relative sense; at best it can be ‘true for us’.

An important issue in assessing this third view is what status Wittgenstein intended for the sketched alternative ways of responding to language teaching. Certainly they need enough feasibility to dislodge the conviction that there is one and only one possible way of dividing up the world. On the other hand it is not clear that he takes us to be entitled to assert that there are conceptual schemes which are both incompatible with ours and also fully possible.

Many other readings are also possible, detecting in his writings elements of pragmatism, behaviourism and even deconstructionism (see Behaviourism, analytic; Deconstruction; Pragmatism §2; Realism and antirealism §4; Relativism).

A general question is whether Wittgenstein should be read as a philosophical theorist or as a therapist offering to relieve us of the impulse to construct philosophical theories. To take him to be offering anti-realist, sceptical or relativist views is to see him as a theorist. Those who read him as a theorist in his later work are also likely to favour a metaphysical reading of the Tractatus, seeing it too as expressing a philosophical theory, for example some version of realism. Other commentators (representing a mainstream view) see him as shifting from a theoretical stance in the Tractatus to a therapeutic one in the later work. Yet a third group favours a therapeutic reading of his intentions throughout and believes that the ideas offered in the Tractatus are much more similar to those of the later work than is often supposed.

This entry assumes that the second approach is right, at least in that the Tractatus embodies commitments which are, in effect, theoretical and which Wittgenstein later recognized and criticized as such. But it allows also that the third group may well be correct in thinking that Wittgenstein’s overt intentions always had a therapeutic aspect. (It may also be that the distinction between theory and therapy is less clear-cut than previously assumed.)

Citing this article:
Heal, Jane. Alternative readings. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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